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An Interview with Tim Heidecker

“I GUESS I’M GOOD AT IMPROVISING. MUCH BETTER AT IMPROVISING THAN MEMORIZING LINES. I’M IMPROVISING RIGHT NOW.”

Shenanigans discussed in this interview:
Posing as the new editor in chief of Rolling Stone magazine
Asking weird questions at drive-thrus
Complaining about tariffs at tollbooths
Pretending to be unfamiliar with toilets

by Molly Brodak
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Tim Heidecker

“I GUESS I’M GOOD AT IMPROVISING. MUCH BETTER AT IMPROVISING THAN MEMORIZING LINES. I’M IMPROVISING RIGHT NOW.”

Shenanigans discussed in this interview:
Posing as the new editor in chief of Rolling Stone magazine
Asking weird questions at drive-thrus
Complaining about tariffs at tollbooths
Pretending to be unfamiliar with toilets

by Molly Brodak
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Tim Heidecker

Molly Brodak
133 Snaps

Tim Heidecker is a blazingly prolific comedian. Most famously, he’s created a universe of projects with his absurdist comedy duo, Tim and Eric, including a major motion picture (Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) and several television shows, the best known of which is Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007–2017). In 2012, Tim starred in Rick Alverson’s dark comedy film The Comedy, which revealed a new, bitter color in his acting. Currently, he works with Gregg Turkington on Adult Swim’s movie-review parody show, On Cinema at the Cinema, which has spun off projects including Decker, an action-comedy series; The Trial, a five-hour mockumentary about his On Cinema character’s murder trial; and a real campaign for district attorney of San Bernardino County.  

Heidecker is also a prolific musician and has released ten albums, which some critics separate into two bins: ironic and sincere. Urinal St. Station, from his piss-obsessed group the Yellow River Boys, goes into the ironic bin; In Glendale, a meditation on suburban life, goes into the sincere bin. But in taking a broad view of Heidecker’s work, I’m not convinced this binary works anymore—or that it ever worked—as a set of stable categories for Heidecker’s prolific artistic production, which finds uncanny depth in poking fun at comedy itself by hovering eternally over the line between real and fake.  

And there’s also his weekly call-in podcast, Office Hours, which has been translated into a live stage show—as were Awesome Show and On Cinema. His production company, Abso Lutely Productions, has launched brilliant shows like Nathan for You and The Eric Andre Show, as well as ad campaigns, including the best three-minute advertisement for pizza rolls ever conceived.  

We met over coffee on the sunny patio of a new Whole Foods in Brooklyn, near the venue where his On Cinema at the Cinema Live! show concluded its recent tour of the East Coast. 

—Molly Brodak

 

I. “REPRESSED MEN GET VERY ANGRY.”

THE BELIEVER: In your show On Cinema at the Cinema, you play a vapid jerk who goes by your name. From where do you draw this character of “Tim Heidecker”? Is it just an exaggeration of you? Some element of who you are?

TIM HEIDECKER: JP, our tour manager, who I’ve worked with for many years, and who I’m very close with—we are picking up some VHS tapes for Gregg [Turkington], which we sell at the show, and Gregg is finding them at various thrift stores as we drive all over, and Gregg really gets into it, and he’s going on about some horrible movie we found, and I look at JP and say, “The funny thing is, there’s a lot of Gregg in Gregg.” And he looks at me and goes, “There’s a lot of you in Tim!” And I go, “Really?” And he’s like, “Yes.” 

I think we all can be jerks and assholes at certain times. And especially when you’re around people you’re comfortable with. I remember meeting Gregg for the first time, and I was such a fan of Neil Hamburger [Gregg’s stand-up character]: “That is the nicest guy I’ve ever met. How is this the same person?” Then you get to know him, after five or six years, and we start really talking, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, there he is.”

But I grew up in Pennsylvania around car dealers, these German, stoic, World War II–generation men, serious men, and masculinity was very strong, and there was not much but boring tendencies to watch sports and drink beer. At the same time, I was always encouraged to pursue theater and film—I was not that closed, but I saw it all around me. Repressed men get very angry. And I’m Irish, so I can get angry at things and lose my temper—not a lot, but I can get there. I draw on that; I improvise. I guess I’m good at improvising. Much better at improvising than memorizing lines. I’m improvising right now. 

BLVR: Some of the fake outbursts I’ve seen in On Cinema feel like genuine anger.

TH: I was talking to Gregg last night about when we’re onstage and he just—he interrupts me all the time with fucking movie-trivia junk. Like if I say she was “gone” or something, he’ll say, “Gone with the Wind.” It’s starting to genuinely make me annoyed. So yeah, I get easily impatient. That’s not a hard thing for me to tap into. 

BLVR: There’s a great moment at the end of the last episode of On Cinema when you are having this kind of inept come-apart and you say, “A couple of weeks ago I’m standing on the Sixth Street Bridge. If I fucking jumped, I’m in hell,” and it’s a genuinely chilling moment. There’s a quietness in the room when you say this. 

TH: And Gregg has the best look on his face. 

BLVR: You get to play the bad guy, and also, maybe, you get to punish him. 

TH: The format of On Cinema makes that easy to happen. It’s essentially a show where I’m talking to the audience. So it’s really easy to be reporting on how I’m feeling or what I think. It wouldn’t feel genuine if it were just a scene or something. And that’s where the comedy is to us, that this guy keeps crossing the line of what would be appropriate to talk about on a media review show, like his diabetes or his son dying, like, What are you doing? You don’t have to tell anyone this. So it encourages me to always go way further than what is appropriate. 

BLVR: Going too far is the best stuff.

TH: It sets off the audience and, more important, it sets off Gregg, creates conflict. He’s so unflappable.

 

II. “I WAS IN JACKSON HOLE AND GOT BEAT UP BY NAZIS.”

BLVR: And then we come to The Trial, which I think is a legitimately genius work, having echoes of Kafka and Beckett, with a kind of deadpan absurdism that really messes with—maybe more perfectly than any other project—that line between reality and fiction. You put your character on trial. He threatens suicide. This evil character seems to be something you toy with crushing or destroying. Has playing this character been cathartic or increasingly irritating in the context of Trump’s rise? Is it a burden? 

TH: It is very fun to go into that place. For short periods of time. I don’t internalize the emotion of that character into my own life. It’s an easy person to be, because you just go the opposite direction of every choice you would make. You’re the pure id or something—what Trump does. I’d like there to be a nice ending to it, some kind of satisfying, well-told narrative—not that anything works out well for [the character]. 

The fever from the audience [on the live tour of On Cinema] for me giving something five bags of popcorn is like, What? What the fuck? We love it, and we think it’s funny, but the audience just goes crazy. So it’s something we want to keep going. One notable thing for us—the folks who make the Marvel movies are the biggest On Cinema fans, and they’re like, “Oh, you’re doing what we’re doing. Same thing. You are building this universe that goes in all kinds of directions.” The frustrating thing is always [doing things one] little piece at a time. We have great allies at Adult Swim, but it would be great if somebody came and said, I see what you guys are doing. Let’s take it to the next level. Because maybe we could just be getting started. We could take it to the next level.

BLVR: What would that look like? Movies?

TH: Well, there is something in the can now [that] I guess I can talk about. We shot a documentary about my race for DA. So it’s going to come out later this year, and we shot it, and it’s very good, I think. The Trial set the standard for the idea that there would be media created that we don’t have control over, and that’s an important aspect. We’re always thinking, What is the medium? What is the delivery system for this particular piece of comedy? Why is it so? The Trial had to just be from a news source, as it would really appear. The campaign is the first thing that is being made by the third party, just interested in following this guy. I mean, we do have control over it, but the premise is that we don’t. 

BLVR: On Cinema started in 2011 as a podcast, a podcast that poked fun at podcasting, with its format, which tends to indulge bloviation, conspiracy theories, and just general amateur rambling as premises for the real drama and personal conflict between your characters. Its drama is soap-operatic and intentionally participatory with its audience. Its satire creates an entire cohesive universe out of which other projects, like Decker or the DA campaign, spin, requiring, or at the very least anticipating, audience engagement. Was it designed as such?

TH: No, we didn’t anticipate that audience participation, but we recognized it kind of early and thought this was really cool, and we could feed that more. This world exists online, beyond us, on Twitter. I can’t remember when exactly that clicked for us, but it’s incredibly exciting and it inspired us to realize we could go all kinds of places with this show. That essentially we were writing a novel or something. We could talk about things happening without actually having to go shoot that scene. We could just refer to the fact that I was in Jackson Hole and got beat up by Nazis, and the audience invests in that as part of the narrative. The more complicated it gets, the more it doesn’t change, like a soap opera. The details make it. In the last season, I’m wearing my Rio Jenesis hat, which is a product that we introduced on the show, which is so fun; it’s so fun to make up details like this. Gregg and Eric and I are crying, laughing, making this hat and spelling it this way. The joy that we get from that is unknowable. Those little details. 

BLVR: The details are amazing, very novelistic. Do you read a lot?

TH: I try. There was a period when I lived in New York—that sounds so corny, but it’s true—when I lived in the city, I read a lot, and when I was in high school and college. I loved Kurt Vonnegut, Nicholson Baker, Murakami… I loved books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m reading a novel right now called Seveneves, a sci-fi novel [by Neal Stephenson]. I’m trying to read this Philip Roth book. I’m also listening to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But reading fiction growing up was very instrumental. Vonnegut especially.

 

III. “THE RANDY NEWMAN SCHOOL OF THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR”

BLVR: Two days after the Kavanaugh hearing, you posted a parody song, “Tobin and the Judge,” using some of the language from the broadcast. How do you stay so nimble and responsive to current events?

TH: We watched that hearing on the road. We were just like, What the fuck? Who is buying any of this? We were so indignant about it and disgusted by him, and he’s clearly lying, just one of those guys you just knew in high school. Doing shit with girls that was not consensual, and binge drinking—that guy. And he seemed insane, deranged, and it was very much on our minds, all we were talking about. We are sitting backstage with Axiom and Manuel, who are musicians in the band, sweet guys and very good musicians, and we were just warming up on the guitar and laughing about their names, fucking Tobin, and Judge, and PJ, and Timmy. I’m playing some riff, just a warm-up, and I just start singing, “Lifting weights with Timmy, so long ago.” And then everyone’s sitting around, and it’s—Let’s just get my camera and do it, just put it out. 

I put it out so quick I don’t have a ton of time to think about it or question if I’m doing the appropriate thing. Because I know—and I think a lot of people understand—that what I’m doing is some kind of satire, some kind of commentary, but it’s not obvious. It’s the Randy Newman school of the unreliable narrator, singing in the voice of a character that isn’t me. Not explicitly condemning it or criticizing it. That’s for you, the audience, to do. 

BLVR: I do think people know now. I did want to ask how your audience changed because of Trump, and how you are engaging with them now.

TH: I don’t know how to quantify it, because I do think it’s not fair to look at negative YouTube comments or Reddit as some kind of reflection of a large group of people. Since this has cropped up in the last few years, nobody’s come to me at a show; nobody’s approached me at a show or in person. It’s all anonymous, online, so who knows.

I look at that situation as: Eric and I made a lot of stuff that was, I think, nihilistic and satirical of the culture of mainstream stuff. Like Shrek. We’re making fun of Shrek as a piece of entertainment. But at the same time, I’ve always been a liberal. I didn’t grow up that way—my parents are conservative, classic Reagan conservatives. Everybody I work with, or create with, generally falls in the same place. And it [politics] stayed out of our work, because it wasn’t something we were doing. I’m not Bill Maher up there, talking about what’s in the news this week, necessarily. But I bring up the nihilism because I think there are a lot of white boys who grew up with us and identified with the punk, nihilistic, nothing matters, nothing is important position. Anything sincere is to be rejected. Burn it all down. Then they see me coming out and saying, “Hey, I think you should vote for Barack Obama,” and it’s different. 

But those kids, at the same time, were finding themselves in communities and groups who found humor in things that I never thought were funny, like anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia, things that just weren’t on the fucking table for us as subjects of comedy. I suppose they felt disillusionment. And actually I have kind of a theory that 9/11 was a much more damaging event for millennials. If you were ten when that happened, or even younger, you are now twenty-eight or whatever, and having that be the first event of your life that showed you what the world was like, plus the eighteen years that followed? The government is lying to you, the government tortures, we’re bombing people, all that shit. And then going on the internet and finding the truther stuff and conspiracy theories: I feel like I can imagine a lot of people who fall into that alt-right category who are attacking me—and [some] of them, I think, are doing it just because they think it’s funny and they think we are both in on the joke—

BLVR: But there’s an element of it that can’t be denied. White supremacy, racism, whatever: that’s a very clear line. You fall on one side of it or the other, and you are clearly on one side of that line. Some comedians are on the other side, and you clearly don’t stand for that.

TH: The funny thing to me is you have people going, “You should know better than anyone what comedy is, and you are an absurdist yourself, so how can you criticize?” And in the next breath they say, “You are against me because you disagree with my political beliefs”—well, which is it? Is it a joke or not? [Tim smashes a bee in a paper bag on the table, but then the bee crawls out, unscathed.]

BLVR: You’ve been asked in interviews about the recurring theme of failure in your comedy, and you’ve said that failure is funny—

TH: That’s going to be the name of my memoir.

BLVR: —failure just is in the DNA of comedy. And you’ve been asked about dads and dad jokes, but you’ve not often, or ever, been regarded as creating a type of comedy that is specifically and directly engaged with masculine failure. In fact, I would argue that most of your work feels like a response to toxic masculinity, and the breakdown of a kind of artificial confidence some men use as a coping mechanism for the fear of inadequacy. 

TH: Our work has never been an intellectual exercise for us, like, we’re not sitting there thinking, How are we going to analyze culture and masculinity? But I agree it’s there; it’s not random. I dislike that, when people say our work is “random.” We’re aware of what we’re doing, but we’re not sitting around checking off boxes. 

The effect of it is, hopefully, [that] men recognize the absurdity of what we are making fun of and hopefully feel less compelled to lean into that. And be more comfortable [about] being less stuck in a certain mode of what masculinity is supposed to be about. I’m not sure how well I really do that or how much of an advocate I am for that, but, I mean, I try. I think one thing that never gets talked about is how Eric and I made ourselves look totally foolish. I’m very much nude a lot of the time [on Awesome Show]. So if you’re a twenty-year-old man in Nebraska or something and you don’t get a lot of art or culture in your life, we’re showing you a kind of guy who can—and I’m not gay, but I put on lipstick and… I love musicals, and I’m basically gay. [Laughs] But I still love the Dodgers and I like guy stuff. But I also like to put on a thong and hump Eric. And play a woman. So if there’s somebody out there who is surrounded by guys who thinks that being a man is narrowly defined as x, y, and z, then maybe this is a positive thing.   

 

IV. COMPLAINING ABOUT TRUMP’S TARIFFS AT THE TOLLBOOTH

BLVR: In what ways do you see the technology or the internet, specifically, changing comedy? 

TH: The democratization of comedy is huge. When I grew up, there were entertainers [who] were on TV, and they were famous, very famous. They were in another dimension. And that was it. Now you can just make a video yourself. This guy Gabriel Gundacker makes this Zendaya Is Meechee video, and it’s got, like, five million views. That’s happening all over the place. Our production company is always looking at these people, wondering who to work with next. This other guy, Chad Kroeger, this California beach guy, goes to city council meetings as a frat guy. And he does this as stand-up, in a real setting. So he’s doing what I’m doing. He’s using this new medium, and figuring out what medium to use for the character. 

BLVR: Your career coincided with the rise of online trolling. Trolling is, essentially, about defying expectations in a way that resists all interpretation and sincerity—it hovers eternally over the line between “just kidding” and genuine threats. Comedy itself seems to always be in your sights. Would you call your comedy, by that definition, trolling?

TH: People say that. There are some things I’ve done that could be called that. Like in the early days of Twitter, I pretended I was the new editor in chief of Rolling Stone magazine. And that felt like it successfully fooled some people and was a delivery system for a kind of satire about rock magazines, rock journalism, delivered via Twitter, and I guess I trolled some people there. But I don’t like that word, and I don’t think it describes our stuff. I think we’re always trying to make something that is to be genuinely liked by a certain group of people. Our shows are to be laughed at. They aren’t fucking with you to try to confuse you or to get one over on somebody. 

BLVR: You’ve leaned into the trolling you yourself have received as a comedian—rewriting Paul Simon’s “I Am a Rock” into “I Am a Cuck” as a way of processing and confronting the anger that was directed at you after you came out against Trump (whose presidency you predicted years ago in your stand-up). Your jokes about masculine tenderness and error reveal what I believe to be actual tenderness, something about which I think we should be having more conversations. How did satire, which is pointed and sharp, become your medium?

TH: I don’t know what else it would be. Because it’s always a reflection of something we see. It goes back to that audience, that nihilistic audience. Sincerity being almost out of the question. And that’s a lot of the first half of my career. But there’s a lot we’re not making fun of. It was only specific stuff—it wasn’t as nihilistic as it seemed. There’s plenty of stuff we’re not making fun of, just by omission. Awesome Show mostly made fun of television, and marketing, and cheap crap, and that’s what we saw growing up. TV and the mall. The sword store and the cigar store at the mall. And young-adulthood, getting a job in the corporate world—it was all silly to us. 

And then I think you get a little older and you find the things you care about, and, you know, I wrote a record that was not satirical, In Glendale, that was about my life. Because I also felt very insecure about talking about myself in a real way, because I felt like there wasn’t much there worth talking about. 

BLVR: I see that in my students. When I give reflective writing assignments, I often have students, mostly young men, who genuinely feel they have nothing to say, but really it’s just that they haven’t exercised this muscle of self-reflection with sincerity. 

TH: Right. I was thinking about that this morning. All of our stuff is making fun of other things, people, ideas, and that’s the birth of a lot of it. In On Cinema we’re making fun of criticism, the whole history of mass-produced film, so, yeah, I think that tires over time. It gets a little Is it really that bad? Are you really that mad about it?

BLVR: In your Office Hours podcast, you are talking directly to your fans (and haters) in a way few other entertainers do. Have you changed your thinking about how you engage with your audience?

TH: We did always just make stuff for us, to make us laugh, to make our group of people laugh, without a lot of thought. But after you make stuff and you see what people respond to, you think about what you want to do again because it’s popular, and what you want to destroy because it’s popular. 

BLVR: Like what?

TH: Like “Beaver Boys” would be a good example [a recurring skit from Awesome Show featuring two party boys obsessed with white wine and shrimp]. That was something that was really popular that was not my favorite thing, but people loved it, so I intentionally said, “Let’s not do that thirty thousand times.”

BLVR: People are shouting, “Shrimp!” “White wine!” in the audience at your stand-up act…

TH: And people are going to do that with any act. And I’m grateful that people love that stuff. But in the last few years I’ve opened up more, and I’ve found, like, with Office Hours I do like to talk to people, and I have an audience that’s been around for a while. It’s not so much about fucking with people. 

But I also will fuck with people. Because that’s what we do. Like if I’m in a car with Gregg somewhere and we go through a drive-thru, we’re going to ask weird questions. Or we’re going through tolls. So we’re casually complaining about Trump’s tariffs to the tollbooth people, like, “Oh, these tolls are really getting up there, these tariffs, you know, are really…,” and nobody’s listening, but that’s just what we do in our lives. It’s just making ourselves laugh. Gregg and I have this thing going where we pretend to be two guys talking who aren’t super familiar with toilets. Like, “‘You know, the thing with the bowl, it’s a round… pot.’ ‘Oh yes, I know what you mean.’” It was killing us. “‘It’s white, right?’ ‘Yeah it’s white.’” That’s what we do all day.

The Comedy was that. That’s what Rick [Alverson, the writer-director] was going for. I remember being excited to do it; I liked Rick and his process. The improvisation of it. There was no dialogue written for it. He had some topics for us. But I knew that world. I lived in Williamsburg [in Brooklyn]. I knew those kind of guys. I could have been that kind of guy, easily. The kind of guy who [doesn’t] have the creative outlet I have. I get to unleash on the world some of this content, while someone with less ambition just does it with friends and drinking. I thought it was an important, interesting thing to look at, because I don’t think anyone was looking at that. And it came out great. And people hated it. Look at the reviews. The New York Times review. They came at it from the perspective that Rick was kind of glorifying these characters. It was just a miss. The kids we were parodying said, “That is me, and I didn’t like what I saw.” 

BLVR: The first time I saw The Comedy, I thought it was very dark, then I thought it was very funny the second time. I’m reminded of the Roger Ebert review of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, and it was so clear that he just didn’t get it; it was just a failure as a reviewer to deal with this movie competently.

TH: Well, the fact that he was suggesting alternate jokes in the review was sort of like a tell that this guy was not getting it. And it was weird because I had just gotten back into him. Ebert had written a great piece on that movie Tree of Life. I loved that movie, and he wrote this beautiful review, which helped me understand why I loved it. So I was like, “Cool, man. Ebert is cool.” Then I wake up and I get that review. 

BLVR: And then you become someone who is making fun of movie reviewers in On Cinema. Did that fuel the way you did that?

TH: Not individual reviewers, but review culture. Everything gets a review. Why? Why are we reviewing, like, Iron Man 3? What is there to say about that? Who cares? The river, this unstopping river of commentary… not that I hate movies. I love movies.

BLVR: What’s a movie you’ve loved recently?

TH: They’re all the kids’ movies, because I have a five-year-old. I’m not kidding when I say that Paddington 2 is the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so clever and funny. I’m not kidding. Watch it. First of all, everyone in the movie is a great, accomplished actor. It looks like Wes Anderson, but without being so heavy-handed. I liked this way more than I liked Isle of Dogs, which I feel is so in on its own joke. Paddington 2 has great British humor; it’s unpretentious, genuinely funny. Emotional. Very emotional. And [the first] Paddington is also good, but this one is better. And I wept. 

BLVR: A lot of your projects start with a desire to collaborate. What do you do independently?

TH: My music. But even music has collaboration. I have a producer, usually. Jonathan Rado knows how to get good sounds, knows great players, and I don’t have [either] of those qualities. I don’t identify with stand-up comedy, solo. The best thing Eric and I had was each other: having each other in the beginning, testing ideas, checking in with each other about our choices. I’ll provide a voice of reason on some issues and he’ll provide the voice of reason on some issues. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have that now, during that early stuff. I would have turned out different.

BLVR: How would you have turned out?

TH: I would be working in midtown Manhattan as a manager of something stupid. For sure.

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